Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ! Amen. Today’s Old Testament lesson has always amazed me. The bold confidence of Abraham to stand before the LORD and intercede on behalf of a wicked, violent city just blows my mind! And even though it always seemed to me that God did not ultimately grant what Abraham desired, you still got to give the man credit for boldly going where few people have gone before or since. Who else but Moses or Christ himself might stand in the breach for the sinful Sodomites (cf. Ps. 106:23; Luke 23:34)? Honestly, I must admit that I don’t know if I could have or would have done the same thing. Or which of you have lifted up your hands to pray for the deliverance of Al Qaeda, ISIS, or some other group of evil people? Certainly not I, despite the apostle Paul’s urging that prayers and intercessions be made “for all people” (1 Tim. 2:1).
Yet today’s Old Testament lesson tells us more about the character of God than it does about the faith of Abraham. In the past, my typical reading of this passage was that Abraham made a good effort that went unanswered—or at least not answered in the way he would have liked. For, as we well know, God ultimately did destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their many sins, raining down fire and brimstone upon them (Gen. 19:24).
This episode about Abraham’s intercession for Sodom appears to be a good example of how I usually teach my confirmation kids that God generally answers prayer in one of three ways: yes, no, and wait. “Yes” means we get what we ask for. “No” and “Wait” both mean that God has something better in store for us. We may not be able to see it clearly at the time, but a different answer than the one we hope for is always the better answer. However, I have never been able to see how the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is a better answer than the one Abraham asked for: “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? … Far be it from you to do such a thing…. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:23, 25, ESV).
Abraham prayed for God’s mercy on sinful Sodom. God’s answer to pray was a clear “no.” The courage of Abraham to intercede was a noble effort, but unfortunately it was “too little, too late” for a thoroughly wicked and corrupt society. Better luck next time, Abe!
But why are we so quick to turn this into a hero story about Abraham’s faith while assuming that God did not answer Abraham’s prayer?! Admittedly, Abraham did ask for God to spare Sodom. In Middle Eastern fashion, he even managed to “haggle” him down to restraining his wrath over a righteous remnant of merely ten people. Sadly, the only apparent righteous man in the entire city was Lot, whose conscience was tortured by the wickedness of his neighbors (2 Pet. 2:7-8). (Not even his family acted in good faith, as evidenced by Lot’s wife turning back and being turned into a pillar of salt and his own daughters getting him drunk in order to violate him—quite the family!).
But the Bible has a different take on God’s reply than my first reading. According to the writer of Genesis: “So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, God remembered Abraham and sent Lot in the midst of the overthrow when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had lived” (19:29). In other words, God did answer Abraham’s prayer because he rescued Lot. Abraham’s ultimate intercession was not a general prayer for the city as a whole, but a specific prayer for the supposedly righteous remnant he wrongly assumed must be there. “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous [people] within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it?” (18:23-24). Abraham’s concern was for his nephew Lot and any other believers he hoped were there.
In the end, Abraham got the Lord to agree to relent of disaster for the sake of 10 righteous people—ten believers in the One True God. The letter of his prayer was answered. (And lest we misread the text to mean that “righteous” people are people who are always obedient to God, remember that Abraham himself was justified by faith, not by works, as we read in chapter 15: “And he believed the LORD, and it was counted to him as righteousness” [15:6]). God did not spare Sodom, but he did rescue Lot and the wicked women in his family. God answered Abraham’s prayer and gave him what he wanted. He read between the lines and filled in the gaps with the ultimate desire of Abraham’s heart: the salvation of his dear nephew.
Part of the lesson of this story is that we must persevere in faith and prayer. God did answer Abraham’s prayer according to his “good and gracious will” (SC). And we too, like Abraham, should be encouraged to stand before God in prayer and boldly ask for whatever we need or desire. King David writes in Psalm 62, “Pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us” (Ps. 62:8b). And the author of the Letter to the Hebrews urges us that, because Jesus is our High Priest, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have the assurance that our sins are forgiven and no longer bar the way to God’s grace and open ears. He welcomes our prayers and counts them as sweet smelling incense in heaven (Ps. 141:2; Rev. 5:8). So never hesitate to lift up your hearts and hands in prayer to the Lord.
Yet Abraham is more than merely an example of the kind of prayer warrior we should seek to be. He also stands as a “type,” or foreshadowing, of the even greater prayer warrior to come: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who stood in the breach before God the Father on behalf of all humanity—not just Lot or Sodom—and prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). In one of his famous Servant Songs, the prophet Isaiah foresaw the way in which Jesus on the cross “bore the sin of many, and makes intercessions for the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12). In other words, Jesus prays for sinners like you and me. St. Paul calls him “the one mediator between God and man” (1 Tim. 2:5). And even now, after his resurrection and ascension into heaven, Jesus still prays for us at the right hand of the Father (Rom. 8:34). In fact, Jesus “always lives to make intercession” for us (Heb. 7:25).
God is ready and waiting to hear our prayers because of what Jesus accomplished on the cross. We can approach his throne of grace with the same boldness that drove Abraham to stand before God in prayer for Sodom and Gomorrah and the same boldness with which Christ himself cries out in our regard. For, as Jesus taught in the Lord’s Prayer: God is our “Father” (Luke 11:2). And, as Luther writes, “With these words God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear Father” (SC, Introduction to the Lord’s Prayer).
What kind of an earthly father would give a hungry child a snake or scorpion instead of a fish or egg to eat (cf. Luke 11:11-12)? None that I know of! Far be it from you, Lord! Far be it from you (cp. Gen. 18:25)! “If you then,” Jesus says, “who are evil, know then how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13). The Lord answers prayer. And so we come and pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.